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Shane Baz, the Great and Powerful, ascends to baseball’s biggest stage

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Here’s what to expect from the rookie’s fourth career start in Game 2 of the 2021 ALDS.

Toronto Blue Jays v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Last night Tampa Bay Rays rookies Randy Arozarena, Wander Franco, and Shane McClanahan led the team to a 5-0 victory over the Boston Red Sox as they take a 1-0 lead in the best in five series.

The Rays will hand the ball to another rookie to start game 2, and this time the rookie is far less experienced.

While Shane McClanahan made his debut in the playoffs last year and pitched 123.1 Major League innings in 2021, Shane Baz will take the mound with just 13.1 innings of Major League experience since making his debut a little more than two weeks ago.

We’re not in Durham anymore

Possibly baseball’s top pitching prospect, Baz was a big deal in prospect circles even back when he was acquired as the PTBNL in the infamous Chris Archer trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates that brought in Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows to the Rays. At the time, Baz was the number 12 overall pick in 2017 draft, but still raw as a high school draftee.

After a solid season at Bowling Green (A) he climbed his way on the Baseball America Top 100 list coming in at #71 heading into the 2020 season. Baz worked out at the Alternate Site in 2020, but the questions remained around control problems would lead him to a relief role. Due in part to no minor league season in 2020 due tot he COVID-19 pandemic Baz fell off the Baseball America Top 100 list coming into the 2021.

Baz came out of the gate with the Montgomery Biscuits looking like his control problem could be behind him. In 32.2 innings he walked two batters (1.7%). The strikeouts even surged to 40.8% after posting a 25.4% strikeout rate with Bowling Green in 2019.

In the middle of June he was promoted to the Durham Bulls (AAA). He spent a month in AAA before heading off to Japan as one of the members of Team USA where he helped the team win a silver medal in the Olympics.

After missing a month he got back to work in Durham, where his results continue to tower above his peers. In 46.0 innings he put up a 1.76 ERA/3.32 FIP/2.98 xFIP. His strikeout rate (36.0%) was excellent and he continued to walk fewer batters (6.2%).

The industry took notice of his improvement in control and saw him shoot up to the number 11 prospect on the current Baseball America Top 100. They gave him a 70 grade fastball, 70 grade slider, 45 grade changeup, and 40 grade curveball with 40 grade control before the season started. The elite fastball/slider combo was why some weren’t concerned if he was forced into a future relief role as he could be an elite closer even with wobbly command. If the command improved this is an elite starter package.

MLB: SEP 20 Blue Jays at Rays Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There’s no place like Tropicana Field

It only took an additional month before the Rays felt he was ready for his Major League debut. Shane Baz made his MLB debut on September 20 against the Toronto Blue Jays.

It was the most anticipated pitching debut for the Rays since Blake Snell in 2016 and Baz didn’t disappoint. He threw 5.0 innings picking up five strikeouts without issuing a walk. He only allowed two hits but they did make their way over the fence for homeruns.

In his second start he faced the Miami Marlins. He took a step forward as he struck out nine and walked one over 5.2 scoreless innings. He allowed three hits, but there was very little traffic on the bases in a stress free outing.

Baz’s third start came against the New York Yankees in the penultimate game of the regular season. Cash let it be known that it was going to be a short outing before the game with a three inning or 50 pitch limit. Baz worked through a difficult first that lasted almost 30 pitches, but he was able to limit the damage to a solo home run. He picked up four strikeouts but walked two batters and due to deep counts he was pulled after 2.2 innings with 51 pitches. It wasn’t his best outing, but he showed the ability to fight without his best stuff.

Over 13.1 innings he posted a 36.7% strikeout rate and 6.1% walk rate that were nearly identical to his rates in AAA. The one negative was three homers allowed. The good news is they were solo homers and a 23.1% HR/FB rate is not sustainable.

The sample size is tiny and the stats give us very little to know what we can expect going forward, but the pitch data should give us some clue. Eno Sarris gave us an idea of his stuff in an article at the Athletic. In September Baz ranked second in Stuff+ behind only Gerrit Cole.

What to expect from the Wizard of Baz

Shane Baz’s four-seam fastball has elite velocity averaging 97.0 mph and has generated a 30.4% whiff rate. His fastball has a 2,415 spin rate that looks very similar to Tyler Glasnow’s. It allows the pitch to play well up in the zone. It’s a true plus to plus-plus pitch.

The 86.7 mph slider is a weapon he will lean on against right handed batters (of which the Boston lineup typically has six), but thus far he’s been less willing to throw it to left handed batters. The pitch has produced a 40.7% whiff rate but hasn’t been a pitch he’s used to get strikeouts to this point.

The 82.5 mph curveball has been his most effective breaking ball in his brief major league career, which is somewhat surprising considering how many of the headlines his sliders received in the minor leagues. The curveball has generated a 50.0% whiff rate and has led to five strikeouts despite being his third most used pitch. It really shouldn’t surprise us that a pitcher who has shown the ability to spin a ball ends up being able to throw another very good breaking ball in the same way that Tyler Glasnow added a slider this year.

Baz’s fourth pitch, an 88.7 mph changeup, is still a work in progress. It’s been a pitch he’s only thrown 5.6% of the time and hasn’t thrown a single one to a right handed batter. It’s a change of pace pitch, but has little use beyond that at this point beyond an alternative to the slider against lefty bats.

In two of his three starts Baz has peppered the zone with strikes, but against the Red Sox that might not be a formula for success. Boston has been a very aggressive team at the plate this year with a willingness to chase out of the zone. They are a team that is good at making contact, and if you give them pitches in the zone that can only be amplified.

Nevertheless, the hype is reaching 2011 Matt Moore levels for the Rays prospect, and Baz deserves every but of the attention he’s gotten. He’s a good Major League pitcher.

Baz has been asked to throw 5.0 innings most of the time this year and that likely helps give him a tick or two on his fastball. Accordingly, the Rays won’t ask or expect him to pitch anywhere near a complete game.

A 3.0-5.0 inning outing with a 75 pitch cap seems like a reasonable expectation for this evening, and it’s very unlikely Baz will see the third time through, but he should be able to put the Rays in good position to take a commanding 2-0 lead in the best of five ALDS series.